The ups and downs to covering Ukraine

Panelists at Columbia's J-school discussed how protests both encourage journalism and harm journalists

Violent protests around the world may attract media attention and political change, but that attention comes at a price, according to participants in a panel discussion at Columbia University’s Journalism School. The event, on Monday night, brought together journalists and academics to discuss the violence in Ukraine’s Maidan Square against protesters and journalists and its effects on the future of Ukraine and Russia’s protest movements.

“Is violence needed to make a cause newsworthy or to keep it in the news?” was the leading question of the night. It was posed by Ann Cooper, the J-school’s CBS Professor of Professional Practice in Journalism and moderator of the panel, which included Russian journalist and Klebnikov fellow Olesya Gerasimenko, J-school Professor Todd Gitlin, Harriman Institute Director Timothy Frye, and Tufts University Political Science Associate Professor Oxana Shevel.

Shevel said that in the Ukrainian Maidan protests—which began in late November and successfully removed President Viktor Yanukovych from power last week—violence helped attract media attention and galvanized the cause of the protesters. With little compromise from the government during initial, peaceful protests, violence was a necessary step for change, Shevel said. “If the regime had compromised with protesters at any early occasion, [Yanukovych] would still be in office],” she said. “As events progressed, there was very little give.”

The protesters were in the line of fire of a particularly brutal police force, she said. But, not only protesters suffered—journalists and medics also became victims of the violence. “[Police] were following orders; they overreacted to the violence of the protests,” she said.

Olesya Gerasimenko said that she hopes Russia will avoid similar violent uprisings in the coming months. After seeing the violence against journalists covering the Maidan protests, she’s nervous about this spilling over to Russia. “A lot of my friends want this to be repeated in Moscow,” she said. “I didn’t sleep for several nights. I was up fighting with my friends over Skype and Facebook… We don’t like violence, we’re not prepared for violence.”

As a reporter, Gerasimenko says that she tries not to galvanize violence through her rhetoric. Even with rampant press freedom issues and human rights abuses in Russia, she said that she wants to stay politically neutral, aiming to keep herself out of trouble with Russian authorities and to produce more balanced work. “I’m not a member of the opposition movement. I’m a journalist and try to stay out of both sides,” she said. “You become an enemy for both sides…but it’s a sign of a good article or a good investigation.”

Gerasimenko needn’t worry, according to Timothy Frye. He says that Putin’s concerted effort to paint the Russian protesters as an organized group of hooligans by publishing falsified leaked emails and reports has kept Russian protests from taking the same shape as those in Maidan Square—and from bringing about the same sort of major political change. “Since 2012, the protests have pretty much fizzled out,” Frye said. “There’s a tremendous investment [by Putin] to make sure [the protests don’t] happen.”

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Joanna Plucinska is an intern at CJR